By Tiernan Douieb, professional comedian, NextUp Comedy
There are lots of reasons that comedians decide on having our unpredictable, financially unstable and socially inactive life. Mostly it’s down to being driven by an innate – albeit odd – need to get onstage and make people laugh.
Whatever your motivations, the challenge is the same: to earn enough money to carry on doing what you love while getting on with your life. I’ve got a 5-month-old baby so, for me, it’s supporting my wonderful wife and providing for our family.
However, in a world of free online content and panel show cliques, earning money as a stand-up comedian is easier said than done. This is how I have done it.
At the start
Back in 2003, fresh out of university with all the confidence that comes with being 22, I started gigging. I took every gig offer and entered every comedy competition going, confident of my own talent and skill, despite both at that point being completely unfounded.
My first gig was above a pub in Greenwich. I was so nervous and spoke so fast that almost no one heard my jokes. After I rushed off, the compere took me to one side and said: “you’ve got some good jokes, but nobody heard them. You spoke like a machine gun.”
For comedians just starting out, the typical pay for a 20 minute set hasn’t really gone up since the mid-90s, yet the cost of living has increased considerably. The first few years working the comedy circuit I earnt no more than £8-9k – that’s barely enough for a sandwich and a pint in London these days, let alone rent!
Another thing about being a comic is that it takes huge amounts of time and money. There’s travel, accommodation, admin, taxes, networking and, most importantly, finding time to write your material. Fortunately, I managed to land an advert for Carlsberg at the time which allowed me to hone my skills and paid for the travel to more gigs.
The ad gave me the boost that I needed to get going. So, my first piece of advice to anyone starting out is to take what you can in order to live. I once asked the brilliant political comedian Mark Thomas for advice on a job I wasn’t sure about and he said that you have to do whatever you can that’s within the realms of your skills as a comedian, and that helps you get money and an audience to be able to have the career you want. Once you can live, you can find time to travel, write and do everything else.
I suppose I’m still waiting for my ‘big break’. I’ve done a very small amount of TV work and would love to do more. Over the years I’ve had several of my scripts optioned though they’ve never made it over the final production hurdle.
That said, I’ve had a number of mini-breaks – often from unexpected sources. A few years ago I got a message out of the blue on Twitter from one Mr Frankie Boyle. He’d heard me on a podcast and said he enjoyed my set so much, he asked if I’d like to support him on tour. I jumped at the chance to work with a comedian I respected so much and the tour helped rapidly grow my fan base.
Also, recently I’ve started a podcast called Partly Political Broadcast. I did it mostly for fun but also to make more timely jokes without them going to waste. With such a short news cycle and the ongoing sagas of Trump and Brexit, it’s hard to write jokes based on current affairs without them getting old very quickly. The podcast allowed me to riff about all kinds of current topics. It now gets thousands of listeners every week and just this month!
I think by doing something I enjoyed, the podcast, I got to unleash my creative spirit, which is what good comedy is all about. It’s a creative endeavour that takes you to weird and wonderful places.
So, my next piece of advice would be: do what you enjoy.
There’s no set pattern for being successful in comedy. Some people will tell you that you need to do the Edinburgh Fringe or that you’ll only find success by entering competitions. But really, if you’re doing what you enjoy, you’ll be at your most creative. People will recognise your creativity and offer to pay you for it.
There are some amazing comedians who got started filming their own clips and putting them on YouTube. It’s a fast and relatively cheap way of gaining fans. For me, it was my podcast, which I started with just a microphone and some editing software. You don’t need to spend thousands putting on a big show at the Fringe anymore.
Set aside a bit of money and get yourself a good video and/or microphone setup. If you’ve got talent you’ll get attention.
Even thousands of fans of your YouTube series or podcast doesn’t guarantee you’ll earn much money from comedy. And waiting around for a call from the BBC won’t enhance your comedy career. So how do you earn a living?
The answer, for me, lies in doing lots of different things. I co-run Comedy Club 4 Kids where we do stand-up for children aged 6 plus and their families, and alongside that we teach children how to become comedians in our workshops too. I also write for other comedians and also for some Business Documentaries. I’ve recently been writing for adverts too, as well as earning money from my podcast and participating in radio shows.
Then there are new online streaming services, like NextUp – a platform specifically for stand-up. I had a couple of my shows filmed and put them on their platform, gaining me new fans who come to my live shows as well as a regular income for views. In fact, they just sold one of my shows to Audible, sending me a chunk of money I wasn’t expecting!
So, my final word of advice is to look at all the options and do a mix of work. That way you don’t end up with all your eggs in one basket but you will gain enough income to live off and gain fans from all walks of life.
None of these projects bring in enough for me to live on their own, but put them all together and I earn a reasonable salary. For me, the joy is in doing something I love, working with people I admire and making memories I’ll never forget.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tiernan Douieb has been doing stand-up in the UK and internationally for over a decade. Three of his stand-up shows can be found on NextUpComedy where they attract large audiences. In the last two years he has been supporting Frankie Boyle on tour; writing and producing his weekly podcast Partly Political Broadcast for which he was named one of the Observer’s Top Ten Political Podcasts; organising a series of shows in aid of Help Refugees; and co-running Comedy Club 4 Kids where he is resident MC. He has over 16.6k followers on Twitter and his tweets are regularly included in online sites such as The Poke, Buzzfeed and Twitter moments, as well as papers such as The Times Diary, Independent, The i, The Metro and more.